A "sensitive situation"

By Geraldine Sealey
Published October 5, 2004 9:51PM (EDT)

Work in a war zone as a foreign correspondent, risk your life, and tell the truth about what you see, and you just might end up a problem employee at the center of a "sensitive situation" in your newsroom -- as Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi has become after a private e-mail she wrote about the deteriorating conditions in Iraq spread around the globe. You may remember Fassihi's missive, which was linked on several blogs and was the subject of news stories, but if not, here's an excerpt:

"Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest. Forget about the reasons that lured me to this job: a chance to see the world, explore the exotic, meet new people in far away lands, discover their ways and tell stories that could make a difference."

"Little by little, day-by-day, being based in Iraq has defied all those reasons. I am house bound. I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't. There has been one too many close calls, including a car bomb so near our house that it blew out all the windows. So now my most pressing concern every day is not to write a kick-ass story but to stay alive and make sure our Iraqi employees stay alive. In Baghdad I am a security personnel first, a reporter second."

As Editor & Publisher notes, Fassihi is now taking a "scheduled vacation" -- but whether she'll continue reporting for the Journal from Iraq after that is apparently still up in the air. "Barney Calame, deputy managing editor, declined to speak at length, but confirmed 'it's a very sensitive situation and it is one we are trying to make sure we all understand. Paul (Steiger) is involved and we are deciding on it collaboratively.' This raises the questions: Why is the situation 'sensitive,' and what do Journal editors have to decide about it?"

E&P goes on to point out, via a Hartford Courant report that queried other Baghdad-based reporters, that Fassihi's assessment, although intended for private distribution and not as a Journal-sanctioned report on the war, was an eloquent inside look at the reality in Baghdad.

"Alex Berenson, just back from Iraq for The New York Times, told Halloran that the Fassihi e-mail was 'entirely accurate in its description of reporting conditions.' Thanassi Cambanis, still in Iraq for The Boston Globe, described the risk of 'being carjacked, murdered, kidnapped or blown up.' Chicago Tribune reporter Colin McMahon, also in Baghdad, said, 'I spoke with a woman yesterday and I wanted to go to her house and interview her, and she said, 'No, I don't want an American seen coming to my house.'"

"[Courant reporter Liz Halloran] also asked what the reporters thought of charges that they were ignoring the 'good news' from Iraq. 'To write about a re-painting of a school when three car bombs go off killing how many dozens would be irresponsible journalism, I think,' Cambanis said. Asked the Times' Berenson: 'What good news are we supposed to be reporting when the murder rate in Baghdad has gone up 20-fold or more since we entered the city last year, and when we can't even walk the streets?'"

Does Fassihi deserve to lose her beat -- or do Americans deserve to know what's actually happening on the ground in Iraq, even if it clashes with the administration's rosy pronouncements?

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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